Why do Palestinian detainees go on hunger strike?

By Qassam Muaddi

Six Palestinian detainees entered their second month of hunger strike and dozens more joined them, but it is not the first time and it won’t be the last. Here is why.

After thirty days without eating, a human body begins to react violently. Visibility becomes blurry, muscles become so weak one can barely stand up, pain in the back and limbs becomes constant and increasingly intense and the stomach begins to throw-up blood. Since last month, six Palestinians have consciously entered this painful process. Twenty more joined them last week. They all have one thing in common: they are all held in the occupation prisons indefinitely and they are demanding their release. However, this is not the first time Palestinian detainees protest their detention through hunger strike. In April 2014, a hundred and twenty Palestinian detainees declared an open hunger strike collectively. It lasted 63 days and many were on the brink of death. It was this hunger strike that motivated two young Palestinians from Hebron to try and take Israelí settlers as prisoners, unleashing a series of events which culminated in the Israelí massive attack on the Gaza Strip.

But in order to understand why so many prisoners chose to risk their lives in such a painful way, one must understand the specific detention regime they are subjects to: the Israelí occupation’s “Administrative Detention” system.

An endless torture

“I said goodbye to all the friends in the section. My children’s photographs were the only valuable gift I could offer, so I gave them to my closest friends. I packed my few things and got ready to meet my family. I stood up and hugged everyone in the section when the guard came and called out my name. I was ready to walk out the corridors of the Magido prison, my way to freedom”. That is how the 42-year-old ex-prisoner Abdel Halim ghannam recalls the day when his administrative detention order expired in 2011. It was his day of release, or so he thought. The prison guard did not escort Abdel Halim along the corridors of the infamous Magido prison. Instead, he handed him a paper, from behind the wires of the prison section door. It was a detention renewal order issued by an Israeli military commander, for an additional six months.

Hundreds of Palestinian administrative detainees go through this very scene every year. Currently, more than 400 Palestinians are being held under this system, including one woman. According to the Palestinian human rights and prisoner support organization, Addameer, the Israeli occupation issued 912 administrative detention orders in 2018 alone. 514 of these were renewal orders. As Addameer’s legal researcher, Ehteram Ghazawneh, puts it, “administrative detention is more than an arbitrary detention. It is a form of systematic torture and it can be seen in the way it is designed to function.”

How it works

By the time Abdel Halim was getting ready to meet his family, minutes before he received his detention renewal order, he had been in prison for two years already without charges. He was arrested based on alleged secret information that neither he nor his lawyer had any access to. His detention had been renewed several times already, but this time, he had news from his lawyer that the occupation authorities were willing to end his detention.

In fact, his lawyer could not know for sure if Abdel Halim’s detention was going to be over, because the decision does not really depend on the court, but on the occupation’s secret intelligence, the “Shabak”. It is the Shabak, after all, that presents the secret dossier to the military court, based on which it argues in favor of administrative detention. As Abdel Halim says, “ the prosecution is the Shabak itself and it decides everything.” Addameer’s lawyer, Mahmoud Hassan, explains that “as a lawyer, one is unable to defend the detainee, because there are no charges and the detention reasons are inaccessible to us. The only thing we, as lawyers, can do is to appeal the detention orders repeatedly and demand the detainee’s release.” However, the appeals are systematically rejected, so long the Shabak continues to present secret information to the court. As Ehteram Ghazawneh clarifies, “the occupation authorities use administrative detention precisely when they have no grounds to charge a Palestinian, but seek to repress him or her anyway. It is an instrument used mostly to repress community leaders, journalists, human rights defenders or anyone who expresses rejection to the occupation, including on social media.”

An endless nightmare Palestinians can remain trapped in for months or even years, not knowing when it will end, continuously failing to escape from it through legal means. This is why many Palestinian detainees decide to challenge their administrative detention themselves, with the only weapon they possess: their own bodies.

The battle of Empty Stomachs

In 2012, sheikh Khader Adnan, a Palestinian then-administrative detainee in his forties, decided to go on a hunger strike, alone, to protest his detention renewal and demand his release. Khader Adnan took nothing else than water and salt for 66 days, during which his case became a hot topic in all of Palestine. Palestinians demonstrated, marched on checkpoints holding his pictures and clashed with the occupation soldiers on a daily basis. Internationally, the case of Khader Adnan became a mobilization point for solidarity campaigns that included grassroots organizations, human rights activists and even Irish ex-hunger strikers who voiced their support for Adnan’s struggle. Eventually, the occupation’s prosecution accepted a deal with Adnan’s lawyer. The Shabak pledged not to renew his then-ongoing detention period, in exchange for him suspending his hunger strike. Palestinians saw this as a victory for Khader Adnan who was released a few months later and celebrated all over Palestine as a hero. Since then, hundreds of Palestinian administrative detainees have repeated Khader Adnan’s experience. On social media, Palestinians gave a name for this type of action: “The battle of Empty Stomachs.”

Since January 2019, Addameer documented more than 40 individual hunger strikes by Palestinian detainees, the longest lasting 70 days. At each case, hunger strikers are put into isolation, medically neglected, threatened and in many cases physically aggressed, in an attempt to break their morale and compel them to end their strikes. However, all hunger strikes ended with an agreement between the occupation authorities and the detainees, defining a definitive release date. A type of agreement the occupation could make with hunger strikers from the beginning, sparing them the unnecessary suffering and health degradation. Especially knowing that such an agreement is the only eventuality ahead. But according to Ehteram Ghazawneh, “the occupation makes the hunger strikes last as long as possible to make the cost of engaging in one even higher. It is a way of deterrence.”

“Not a single moment of weakness”

Despite the cost, as the current hunger strike takes a collective form, Palestinian detainees don’t seem deterred at all. It is only an escalation of a confrontation which is present at every moment of detention. One that Abdel Halim Ghannam remembers vividly:

“When the guard gave me the renewal order from behind the wired door, he did not go away. He remained there, looking at me as I opened the folded paper and read it. He wanted to see what my reaction was going to be. He probably expected me to break into tears or hit my head against the wall”. Abdel Halim takes a deep breath as he brings his memories back to life. “I only contained myself and kneeled in prayer with my front against the floor, loudly giving thanks to God. Many detainees do this in defiance” stresses Abdel Halim. “We know that we must not show the occupiers a single moment of weakness.”

It is this spirit that inspires detainees to continue the struggle against administrative detention, with their empty stomachs. A struggle with no close end in sight. As Ehteram Ghazawneh explains, “the struggle against administrative detention is a struggle against the occupation itself. Because the only way to end administrative detention is to end the occupation.”

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